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Julius Erving: The Innovator

1974, Sport Magazine Archives, CC Public Domain

Julius Erving shaped the game of professional basketball more than any other player of his era. The Hall of Fame forward combined style, grace and athleticism to take the game to another level on the court. His popularity was instrumental in merging the upstart ABA with the more established NBA, helping create the league we know today.

After dominating NCAA competition at the University of Massachusetts, where he averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds in two seasons, Erving was signed by the Virginia Squires of the ABA. At the time, college players were not eligible for the NBA draft until their class graduated, but the ABA had a financial hardship rule that allowed players to leave school early.

Erving was an immediate success in Virginia, averaging 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds in 1971-72. The rookie sensation was elected an All-Star for his efforts. He was an even better in his second season, leading the league in scoring at 31.9 points per game. The First Team All-ABA selection added 12.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.8 blocks.


In 1973, Erving took his talents from the small-market Squires to the league’s biggest market after being traded to the New York Nets. Erving’s game was ideally suited for the bright lights of New York City, as the 6’7” forward combined dazzling athleticism with a jazzman’s ability to improvise. He was especially unstoppable going to the basket, finishing with balletic layups and thunderous dunks.

There was also substance behind the style, as Erving was an efficient scorer, excellent rebounder, skilled passer and strong defender. He was also one of the game’s most cerebral players, using intelligence as much as athleticism to dominate his opponents.

Erving’s first season in New York was a resounding success, as he won ABA MVP after leading the league in scoring at 27.4 points per game. The versatile star added 10.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.4 blocks while shooting 51.2 percent from the field. Erving also won his first championship, as the Nets beat the Utah Stars 4-1 in the ABA Finals.

The next two seasons were equally impressive for Erving. He won two more league MVPs, and both a scoring title and an ABA championship in 1975-76. In his three seasons in New York, Erving averaged 28.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.1 blocks while averaging an efficient 50.8 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the free-throw line.


The ABA wasn’t quite as successful as its top star, though. After several teams folded and others experienced financial trouble, the ABA’s remaining four teams merged with the NBA’s 18 teams in 1976-77. Erving’s status as one of the game’s most electrifying players was key in making the merger happen.

After a salary dispute with the Nets, Erving was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would spend the final 11 seasons of his pro career. The NBA’s newest star was an immediate success, averaging 21.6 points and 8.5 rebounds for the 76ers. Erving’s coming out party was the 1977 NBA All-Star Game, where he had 30 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and four steals en route to being named the game’s MVP.

Erving also played in his first NBA Finals in 1977. The 76ers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, but Erving was outstanding, averaging 30.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.7 steals in the series.


The successes kept coming for Erving. He was named First Team All-NBA for the first time in 1977-78, and made his second NBA Finals appearance in 1979-80 after setting NBA career highs by averaging 26.9 points, 4.6 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks. The 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the Finals, but Erving was once again superb, averaging 25.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.3 blocks.

Philadelphia fell short of the NBA Finals the following year after losing to the rival Boston Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Erving won his first NBA MVP after another outstanding season. He averaged 24.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in 1980-81, while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 78.7 percent from the line.


In 1981-82, Erving and the Sixers had a rematch with the Lakers in the Finals. The result was the same, with Philadelphia losing in six games. After coming up short of an NBA title the past three years, the 76ers went all in by trading for Houston Rockets center and reigning MVP Moses Malone in 1982.

The move put the talented Sixers over the top, as they won 65 games en route to their third NBA Finals appearance in four years. This time, Philadelphia swept the Lakers in four games to win its first NBA title since 1967. Erving was part of a balanced attack, as he averaged 19.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.8 blocks in the series.

The 1982-83 season also saw Erving win his second All-Star Game MVP with 25 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the midseason classic. He was also named First Team All-NBA for the fifth time.


Even though he was entering the twilight of his career, the Sixers star remained one of the league’s top players. He averaged at least 20 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks over the next three seasons.

Erving’s point per game average dropped below 20 for the first time in 1985-86, but he was still a solid contributor across the board. The future Hall of Famer announced he would be retiring after the 1986-87 season, his 16th as a professional.

The man affectionately known as Dr. J was given a warm farewell across NBA arenas in his final season. Few players were more universally respected than Erving, who would remain an ambassador for the game long past his retirement.


The career accomplishments for Erving put him on a short list for the greatest forward of all-time. He won three MVPs (two ABA and one NBA), three championships (two ABA and one NBA), two NBA All-Star Game MVPs and three ABA scoring titles. He was also named All-League 12 times (five ABA and seven NBA), and was selected to the All-Star Game in each of his 16 pro seasons.

In 1993, Erving was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

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